If you’ve spent your days in quarantine interacting with friends and family via Animal Crossing or bingeing every season of your favourite show, you’re not alone. Retreating to simple pleasures seems like a natural response to the stress we’re all living through—and according to new research, indulging in these so-called “guilty pleasures” can help us feel more connected during this period of unprecedented isolation.
Though the study, published in the journal Self and Identity, was conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak, its findings are more relevant than ever. At a time when most of us are isolated in some way—either because we live alone, or are cooped up with only our partners, family or roommates for company—we may be aching for the myriad of social connections with those outside our immediate circle that we used to take for granted. Sure, there are Zoom happy hours and FaceTime check-ins, but those both take time and effort and can be an unsatisfying substitute for the real thing. That’s why this research, which considers non-traditional social strategies, is so timely and useful.
Traditional and non-traditional social strategies
Dr. Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo and one of the paper’s co-authors, has been studying non-traditional social strategies for more than a decade—everything from cooking comfort foods, to reading pulp fiction to playing video games set in a virtual reality where everyone is a different animal. Though some of these activities may be labelled as “guilty pleasures,” Gabriel said that we shouldn’t feel guilty about engaging in them—even (or perhaps especially) now. “I don’t think people realise that these non-traditional connections are as beneficial as we found [them to be] in our research,” she said in a release from the University of Buffalo. “Don’t feel guilty, because we found that these strategies are fine as long as they work for you.”
Although there has been plenty of research into the importance of traditional social strategies like interpersonal relationships or group memberships (think choirs, community sports teams and crafting groups), this is the first study to simultaneously test the relative effectiveness of both traditional and non-traditional social strategies.
“People can feel connected through all sorts of means. We found that more traditional strategies, like spending time with a friend in person, doesn’t necessarily work better for people than non-traditional strategies, like listening to a favourite musician,” Elaine Paravati, a University of Buffalo graduate and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “In fact, using a combination of both of these types of strategies predicted the best outcomes, so it might be especially helpful to have a variety of things you do in your life to help you feel connected to others.”
Redefining what it means to be social
When we think of a “social” person, someone who is outgoing, adventurous and constantly out and about with friends probably comes to mind. But that’s not necessarily the case: “We live in a society where people are questioned if they’re not in a romantic relationship, if they decide not to have children or they don’t like attending parties,” Gabriel said. “There are implicit messages that these people are doing something wrong. That can be detrimental to them. The message we want to give to people, and that our data suggest, is that that’s just not true.”
According to Gabriel, non-traditional social connections—sometimes referred to as “social surrogates”—are typically seen as less valuable than interacting with someone in person. Her research suggests that’s not the case. “Nothing [showed us] that people using non-traditional strategies were lonelier, or less happy, less socially skilled or feeling any less fulfilled,” she explained. “These aren’t surrogates for real social connections; these are real ways of feeling connected that are very important to people.”
The key to feeling connected, the authors note, is gaining the sense that you’re fulfilling your need to belong. And if you’re able to accomplish that right now through playing Animal Crossing or watching 15 episodes of “Too Hot to Handle,” more power to you.